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Sunday, March 3

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We at Gapers' Block love food, but while I couldn't cook a meal from scratch to save my life, I'm getting into the spirit with this week's culinary question submitted by Alex. Thanks!

Q: Who cooks for the President? Where did he work before? Is he classically trained? Is it the same guy for every president, or does each president bring his own? Does the President have regular hours or a regular menu, or does the chef just sit in the kitchen all the time and wait for a special order?

Throughout the history of the U.S. presidency, the Executive Chef has been an integral part of the White House residence staff. Like many other residence staff positions, the Executive Chef does not necessarily change with each administration. Chefs are recruited by the White House and are ultimately governed by the First Lady's office. After thorough background checks are completed, interviews for the position of Executive Chef typically include preparing a dish for the First Lady.

During much of the twentieth century, traditional French cuisine dominated the White House menu. Chefs from this period include Rene Verdon, a French chef who served during the Kennedy administration and co-authored a book, In the Kennedy Style, with Letitia Baldrige, the Social Secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy. Lady Bird Johnson then replaced Verdon in 1966 with Swiss chef Henry Haller, who ended up spending the next 22 years, serving as White House Executive Chef through five different administrations: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Haller also wrote a book, White House Family Cookbook, and he now does occasional public speaking appearances to talk about his time in the White House. Jon Hill, who received his training through apprenticeship at the prestigious Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, was recruited by Nancy Reagan to succeed Haller in 1987. Hill was only on the job eight months, however, when the first Bush administration brought in French chef Pierre Chambrin. Chambrin, in turn, was ousted during Clinton's first term when the Clintons decided to eschew the French cuisine in favor of American regional cooking. The White House hired Walter Scheib III in 1994 and he continues to serve as Executive Chef. Are you still with me?

Walter Scheib was just 39 years old when he beat out a reported 4,000 applicants for the executive chef position, but he already had an impressive list of credentials. Scheib began his illustrious career at the age of 15 when he worked as a dishwasher at a Woolworth's lunch counter. By age 20 he was managing a steakhouse in suburban Maryland. Scheib received his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America where he graduated in 1979 and went on to become Executive Chef of the Capitol Hilton in Washington, DC. He was then Executive Chef at the Boca Raton Club and Resort in Florida from 1986 to 1990 before becoming Executive Chef at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. He was working at the Greenbrier when he was recruited by the White House in 1994.

Chef Scheib oversees five full-time staff members at the White House including two assistant chefs, a steward and two pastry chefs. For special functions, he may also manage up to 20 part-time staff.

Roland Mesnier is the current White House Pastry Chef. He trained in France and was hired during the Carter administration. Chef Mesnier has served the White House for 23 years.

The Executive Chef works closely with the Assistant Usher, who supervises all food and beverage operations at the White House. Current Assistant Usher Daniel Shanks is a former manager of the restaurant at the Napa Valley winery of Domaine Chandon. Because of his wine expertise, Shanks takes a lead role in selecting wines for official state functions. On a side note, it may be interesting to know that since the Johnson administration, only American wines are served at official White House functions. In addition, the White House does not have a wine cellar. Wines are only purchased as needed for specific events.

Walter Scheib, like nearly all White House staffers, emphatically insists there is no such thing as a typical day at the White House. The Executive Chef does travel with the President, but only to prepare food for official state functions. Or, when events demand, the chef might be called at home and told that a car will be sent so he can prepare an off-hours meal. At least one former Executive Chef has admitted to sleeping in his office above the kitchen in order to be prepared to make a before-dawn breakfast.

Major events such as a State Dinner require at least two months of planning. Menus are planned in consultation with the First Lady's office. The Social Office informs the culinary staff of any dietary restrictions or food preferences for the expected guests. Armed with this information, the chef and his staff create a menu and prepare a tasting dinner for the First Lady. Revisions are made and retestings are conducted as needed. The food is ordered about two weeks before the dinner, and preparation can begin up to two days in advance.

Since the events of September 11, however, tightened security has affected even the White House kitchens. Food is delivered to a guarded secret storage area and is under the constant supervision of a Secret Service agent. The kitchen also limits deliveries to only select vendors with long-standing business relationships with the White House. If Chef Scheib needs to purchase any last-minute items, he is accompanied by Secret Service agents who monitor everything he buys.

For between meal snacks or lunches on-the-go, the White House kitchen staff keeps the refrigerators filled with the First Family's food of choice. The private meals of the First Family are also done in consulation with the First Lady. One little known fact, however, is that personal meals for the First Family are paid for out of the President's salary. Expenses for offical White House functions are forwarded to the State Department.

Finally, the position of Executive Chef does attract its share of media attention. Walter Scheib was credited with helping former-President Clinton lose 20lbs. during his second term, and, more recently, Chef Scheib has had to deal with endless questions about whether the White House still serves French fries or whether the President still eats them. (Yes and yes.) However, despite the demands of the position, Chef Scheib confesses he hopes to continue to serve the White House until retirement.

Additional Resources:

Scheib, Walter. Transcript of live chat. 22 May 2003. "Ask the White House."

Scheib, Walter. Transcript of live chat. 25 November 2003. "Ask the White House."

Scheib, Walter and Roland Mesnier. White House Holiday Recipes.

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian"? Send your suggestions to librarian@gapersblock and it may be featured in a future column.

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Ramsin / December 18, 2003 2:56 AM

Alice- I heard George W. insulted the Queen by bringing his chef along with him to England, apparently because he wasn't too sure about English food (to be perfectly honest, not sure I blame him). Was that Schreib? Is it even true? Thanks for the info! I'm gonna rock a pub quiz one day because of you. I promise I'll slip you some of the winnings.

Alice / December 18, 2003 10:13 AM

Mmmm. I didn't see that story at all, but Scheib (no "r" - I was having a brain lapse when I was typing that last paragraph) was the victim of a Jaime Kennedy-type French TV show back in August.

Scheib was in Paris attending a gathering of the Chefs des Chefs d'Etat, the exclusive group of chefs that cook for heads of state (Sheib is currently the club president). Anyways, this French TV crew sent a look-alike of the wife of French President Jacques Chirac to his hotel room to pretend to try to lure Scheib away from the U.S. and offer Scheib a job working for Chirac.

Well, Scheib fell for it and got extremely pissed off when he found out the whole thing was a joke, and it threatened to spiral into a full-blown diplomatic incident.

Cinnamon / December 18, 2003 11:07 AM

Now that's funny! Didn't see that in the news.

Does the President call them Freedom Fries, by the way?

Alice / December 18, 2003 11:37 AM

Yeah, it's interesting that the story got very little - if any - coverage in the U.S., but the French TV incident was gleefully reported all over the European papers.

But, no, Scheib has said - or at least implied - that the President does not call them freedom fries. Scheib certainly doesn't anyways.

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 18, 2003 12:15 PM

Not sure what the Queen prepared for Mr. B, but Tony Blair entertained with a meal cooked by Domestic Goddess and Style Network queen, Nigella Lawson. She apparently made him glazed ham and a nice twice baked apple pie, so he shouldn't have felt too home-sick.

Erica / April 11, 2004 3:03 AM

Interesting information on this blog, thanks

Linda / June 3, 2004 8:59 AM

Ha ha ha That's a funny story


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